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Voting Their Fears


Only 535 people get to vote for president of the United States: the electors. On Monday, they did their job. When their votes are tallied, George W. Bush will be announced as the winner. On November 2, the other 122 million of us just gave an advisory opinion. But what advice, exactly, did the rest of us get from that half or more of the electorate who voted for the President, even though he had tanked the economy and led us into war based on lies?

 

On Election Day, before the counting was done, the media chorus was already singing out the official answer: values. The voters’ advice is to take us back to that ol’ time morality. All those abortion-hating, gay-bashing, “moral values” conservatives gave George W. his victory.

 

The only problem is that it’s not quite true.

 

The news told us ad nauseam that 22% of the voters chose “moral values” as their number one issue. But the real news is that this is a historically low number. It was 35% in 2000 and 40% in 1996. In the exit polls, when asked what one quality they wanted most in a president, only 8% chose “religious faith.” Among those who called themselves “heavy churchgoers,” Bush did no better in ’04 than in ’00. What about the states that passed gay-marriage bans, often cited as crucial for the Bush win? They gave Bush 57.9% of their votes; the other states, totaled, gave him only 50.9% — a 7 point margin for Bush. But four years ago, Bush’s share in these same states was 7.3 points higher than in the other states.

 

In a Pew poll taken just a few days after the election, voters were asked to choose from a list of factors that influenced their votes. 27%, chose moral values; 22% chose Iraq. But when they were asked to name their most urgent issue (with no list to choose from), 27% named Iraq and only 9% moral values.

 

When a post-election New York Times-CBS News poll asked: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country?” — only 5% chose either moral values or abortion. Only 8% said yes to: “Should government officials try to use the political system to turn their religious beliefs into law?” Eighty-five percent said no. (Ten years ago, 23% had answered yes to the same question.) “Which worries you more, public officials who don’t pay enough attention to religion and religious leaders, or public officials who are too close to religion and religious leaders?” Thirty-five percent worried about not enough attention to religion; 51% worried about leaders paying too much attention.

 

And here’s another little anomaly to take into consideration: Bush voters are more liberal than the media would have us believe. Nearly half of them worry most about public officials who are too close to religion. In the exit polls, about 22% of them favor gay marriage and 52% would legalize gay or lesbian civil unions. 25% of Bush voters want no restriction on a woman’s right to choose; another 38% think abortion should be legal in most cases.

 

The often-quoted statistic about “moral values” begs the question of how voters interpreted those key words in post-election polls. In a Zogby poll, 68% of self-identified “liberals” said that “faith and/or morals” were important in deciding their vote (14 points higher than “moderates”). When voters were asked to identify the single greatest moral crisis facing America, one-third selected “materialism and greed” and 31% chose poverty, while the combined total for abortion and same-sex marriage was only 28%. In the Pew poll, only about 40% of those who said “moral values” influenced their vote named gay marriage or abortion as their highest concern. Pew pollster Andrew Kohut summed it up: “We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq.”

 

The Terror Vote

 

The economy and Iraq were indeed named by many voters as the most critical issues in this election. But that hardly explains Bush’s success. Those should have been his weak spots. Kerry counted on strong support from middle-income voters, who saw jobs disappearing all around them and little real wage growth for those who kept their jobs. Yet the Bush vote in the $30,000 to $75,000 bracket was no lower than his overall vote, perhaps even a tad higher. Those folks were not voting their economic self-interest.

 

What about Iraq? In the Zogby poll, 42% of voters saw the war in Iraq as the most pressing moral issue affecting their choice for president — almost twice as many as those citing abortion and same-sex marriage. Even among self-identified conservatives, 32% saw the Iraq war as the moral issue that most influenced their vote, while only 21% named abortion and 19% same-sex marriage.

 

But Iraq meant different things to different people. And here, if anywhere, lies the key to understanding the election. In polls taken during the campaign season (collated by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes), 72% of Bush voters said Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program to develop them up to the March, 2003 invasion; only 26% of Kerry voters held that mistaken view. 75% of Bush voters believed Saddam Hussein’s government had a close connection with Al Qaeda; only 30% of Kerry voters believed that error.

 

On election day, the exit polls asked: “Is the war in Iraq part of the war on terrorism?” The 54% who said “yes” went for Bush by a margin of 4 to 1. The 43% who said “no” went for Kerry by 9 to 1. The 19% of voters who named terrorism as their highest concern broke for Bush by 86% to 14%. (That’s 8 points better than Bush did among voters who put “moral values” first.) Ninety percent of Bush voters said things are going well in Iraq. Those who named Iraq rather than terrorism as their highest priority broke 3 to 1 for Kerry. Eighty-two percent of Kerry voters said things are going badly in Iraq.

 

Bush supporters saw Iraq (armed with WMD) and terrorism as a single problem being well managed by the President. (Exactly the same number who saw Iraq as part of the war on terrorism also believed the U.S. to be safer now than four years ago.) Kerry supporters separated the two wars and saw Iraq as spinning out of control.

 

When you add up the numbers, Bush’s slim electoral margin didn’t come from moral-values voters. It came from people who worried first and foremost about terrorism. They supported the Iraq war because they saw both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the current Iraqi resistance as part of the global terrorist threat. And they believed Bush to be the only candidate who could handle that threat. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it: “Without the fading but still potent aura of 9/11, when the nation was ready to rally around any leader, [Bush] wouldn’t have won at all.”

 

University of Virginia political scientist Paul Freedman noted the strong correlation between views on terrorism and voter choice. Those who said they trusted only Bush to handle terrorism voted nearly 100% for him. Those who trusted only Kerry gave 97% of their votes to him. In a state-by-state analysis comparing the Bush vote in ’00 and ’04, Freedman found that it was the jump in the number of voters who cared about terrorism, not moral values, that made the difference.

 

The post-election Times-CBS poll told the same story. It asked for the two most important issues in deciding how people voted. Factors relating to war, terrorism, and national security were named more than twice as often as moral and religious issues. Asked to name the most important problem facing this country, 36% identified issues relating to war and terrorism; only 4% chose “moral values” and 1% abortion. Asked, “How much confidence do you have that George W. Bush will make the right decisions when it comes to protecting the country from terrorist attack?”, 73% said they had “a lot or some” confidence — roughly the same level of confidence that voters had expressed throughout the campaign. In poll after poll, Bush’s support fell below 50% on every issue except his ability to deal with the “war on terrorism.”

 

Summarizing its own poll, the Times concluded that “the outcome of the election reflected a determination by Americans that they trusted Mr. Bush more to protect them against future terrorist attacks rather than any kind of broad affirmation of his policies.” Democratic political analyst Stanley Greenberg agreed: “The No. 1 reason for voting (or considering voting) for Bush [was] response to 9/11.” It was the terror threat, so cleverly wielded by the Bush administration, that gave the President a slim increase over his vote in the 2000 election. If there had been no 9/11, no perceived ongoing terrorist threat, no widespread belief that Iraq equals terrorism, it seems quite likely that John Kerry would be choosing his cabinet now.

 

That’s not to say the “values-vote” story is completely wrong. There are indeed millions of Christian social conservatives out there who do fear God and sin above all else. They voted for Bush because they think of him as one of them. But there are many millions more, professing all sorts of religion or none at all, who fear terrorism above all. They voted for Bush because they were convinced that he would do the right thing in fighting the terrorist threat. Stanley Greenberg and James Carville got it right: “The president was able to keep the election centered on safety (the terrorist threat) and values, rather than on Iraq and the stagnant economy. Bush asked people to vote their beliefs and feelings, rather than to judge his performance or ideas for the future.”

 

Desperate for Moral Certainty

 

Perhaps the mainstream media generally overlooked this point because their story line has to be simple enough to compress into a headline or a soundbite. In the rush to find a single decisive factor, they forgot that no election hinges on a single political group or issue. A candidate wins by mobilizing a network of voters tied together in all sorts of complex ways. The best candidates don’t just find that network. They create it. On this one point, Bush must be given high marks. His campaign skillfully spun a web, not of political opinion, but of beliefs and feelings.

 

He had been doing it since September 11, 2001. From the moment he declared war on terrorists, Bush preached a powerful official story: 9/11 proves that evil really exists. We know it’s out there and we know it’s pure evil, because it attacked the pure innocents (that’s us) for no good reason. Who can now doubt the chasm separating good and evil? Who can now doubt that the only way to deal with evil is to destroy it before it destroys us?

 

For conservatives, this proved the silver lining in the dark tragedy. For years they had been terrified by postmodern relativism, the idea that good and evil are nothing but subjective ideas we make up in our heads. That was the real terror they felt they were fighting — long before 9/11. And they had good reason to fear that it was a losing battle. The “war on terrorism” gave them a new code word for their crusade against moral terror, a new banner to fight under, and new hope that they might somehow win in the end.

 

After 9/11, good old moral certainty was back — or so it seemed. Conservatives could once again insist that there was only one moral code in our world, as eternally true as 2 + 2 = 4. When Bush’s people raised the specter of the brutal dictator Saddam wielding weapons of mass destruction, who could doubt that it was our sacred duty to go to war against such absolute evil?

 

Or so it seemed — before those disturbing shades of moral gray started creeping back into the mainstream picture frame, just as the electoral campaign heated up. The President, sworn to fight for purity and goodness, had sent us to war for reasons that turned out to be false. Was he intentionally lying, or just deceived by faulty intelligence? Who could know for sure? The vice-president’s corporation was making huge profits by overcharging us for its services in Iraq. Was Cheney pulling the strings on the public purse for his private profit, or was he as clueless as he claimed? Decent American kids were sadistically brutalizing prisoners. Were they just a few “bad apples,” or was the military system rotten? Corporations with close ties to Bush & Co. were getting caught with their scandal-ridden pants down nearly every day. Were they just a few bad apples, or was our economic system rotten? The whole world seemed to oppose the war. Were they seeing things more clearly, or just jealous of our power?

 

In the presidential debates, John Kerry tried to play on the doubt that lay at the heart of such growing questions. When he said: “You can be certain and be wrong,” his supporters cheered the pungent soundbite. But the blow glanced off Bush like a pebble off an elephant. Bush just kept playing his winning card: the fear of moral relativism. The moral terrors of social conservatives and the fears of Muslim terrorism converged in the desire to have a leader embodying moral certainty. (“Marriage is between a man and a woman.” “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”) And all with the undoubted blessing of the God who will “continue to bless America” (as Bush always puts it), because “God is never neutral.”

 

Bush had no need to tout conservative economic, social, and moral positions directly. All he had to do was paint Kerry as a wavering “flip-flopper,” unfit to lead at a time when nothing but rock-solid firmness and certainty could protect a nation under siege. This put Kerry on the defensive, forcing him to respond to these charges every day, leaving him little time to put forward his own proactive agenda. Every Kerry retort just confirmed that the election was a referendum on the virtues of strength, firmness, certainty, absolute moral dualism.

 

Bush effectively presented himself as a man of moral absolutes, who knew evil when he saw it and had an unwavering determination to destroy it. Throw in a generous dose of America‘s millennial mission to bring freedom to the world, and he had an unbeatable recipe. Voters could step into the booth and cast their vote for unwavering moral standards and predictable continuity with the past. They could vote against the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world offering too many choices and no fixed rules. They could vote against a world that seems, like many of their lives, to be spinning out of control.

 

That’s why, as Bill Clinton (the savviest Democrat of them all) once told his party, the American people would rather have a leader who is strong and wrong than weak and right. Well, not all the American people. Just enough to elect a president. John Kerry, despite his long conversations with Clinton, never learned that lesson. So we all learned it, the hardest way.

 

What’s an Opposition to Do?

 

How could this have been avoided? Linguistics professor George Lakoff suggests that the Democrats, and all those who stand opposed to the Bush regime, should counter the GOP’s “strict father” values with an appeal to “nurturing mother” values. In this election, though, Lakoff’s approach probably would not have helped. Bush won because so many voters wanted that strict father, a man who could take charge and enforce the rules without compromise. A nurturing candidate, who encourages sensitive, independent choice-making, will have a tough time getting elected in today’s USA.

 

If the anti-Bush forces want to compete for the role of strict father and win, they will have to find some new evils that frighten and outrage enough voters to put them over the top. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it back in the 1930s by attacking the “economic royalists” — the wealthy few who owned most of the nation’s assets — as well as the Nazis. But he had the unique advantage of a decade-long depression and an electoral system that didn’t require nearly as much cash as today. Now, Democrats can hardly build their hopes for success on attacking the corporate hand that feeds them (unless they assure our modern “royalists” that their campaign rhetoric will never be translated into real policy).

 

Perhaps, though, the opposition should admit that it can never outdo the Republicans in the “strict father” game. Perhaps we just have to accept this reactionary trend as an inevitable backlash against long-term changes that are equally inevitable. We are moving toward a world where people hold strong moral values but recognize them as choices and respect the right of others to make different choices. The old-fashioned world of black-and-white moral certainty is doomed. It’s just taking a very long time passing. Think how long it took for feudalism, or monarchy, or state religions, or slavery to disappear. Think how many people suffered in the process, both those who were oppressed by these lingering institutions and those who couldn’t bear to see them go. Maybe that’s what we all must suffer through now. Maybe the best we can do is ward off the most outrageous excesses, buffer the pain, and try our best to understand what’s going on.

 

 

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea (Orbis). You can e-mail him at [email protected]

 

Copyright C2004 Ira Chernus

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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